What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)

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In a Netflix documentary, filmmaker Liz Garbus seeks to answer the question posed by Maya Angelou about legendary singer, What Happened, Miss Simone?

Lonely all by my ownNina Simone.  The voice.  The strength.  The poise.  Look at the way she takes to the stage as though guided by a hand whose direction she has no say in.  She greets the crowd as a distant memory, coming to her in bits and pieces as she makes her way to the piano.  They cheer, she tells them a little something about her day, her thoughts, what she hopes they will take from her performance.  Then, as she did so many times in her life, she performs with vigor and passion while remaining unpredictable in what she would sing next.

She was beautiful.  But, as What Happened, Miss Simone? slowly reveals, the fervor she approached each performance with was directed by something much more complex than passion.  She was beaten, hounded, looked up to, inspiring, frustrating, and loving her friends, family, and acquaintances when she wasn’t being “Nina Simone,” as if – Liz Garbus’ film reminds us – there was ever an opportunity for her to be anyone else.

Garbus has made a great film for a complicated woman.  The courage of What Happened, Miss Simone? Is not in asking the question in figuring out just what drove her, but admitting there may be no good conclusion to arrive at.  What Happened, Miss Simone? delivers a  bounty of performances and songs, as well as little-seen reflections from historical figures mainstream American society seems to be discarding, which are never as straightforward as they initially appear.  The possessed, beautiful, and powerful singing in one moment may be just an upswing in her bipolar disorder, or her recovering from a recent beating from her husband, or realizing the extent she beat her own child.

Simone, and her daughter, waged their wars privately and publically.

Simone, and her daughter, waged their wars privately and publicly.

None of this is simple, and Garbus does not pretend it to be.  The tone of What Happened, Miss Simone? is inviting without exactly being disarming as she includes interviews from friends, family, and fellow performers both close and estranged.  It’s an insider’s look at something impenetrable, so if no one person has the greatest insight into what “made” Nina Simone is partly because that’s the information available and because of the way Garbus constructs the narrative of Simone’s life.

The chronology of What Happened, Miss Simone? seems straightforward at first, starting with Simone’s birth and eventual schooling, but sprinkles these facts with clips of different performances.  Garbus’ approach isn’t to show direct inspiration between life and music, but to add emotional texture and clarity to each.  The opening scenes of What Happened, Miss Simone? show her gliding to stage in a stupor before sitting down to play, but later we revisit the same performance from a slightly different perspective as one of her aides had to take her out there by the arm and sit her down at the piano.

How did I miss this?  Looking back at those first clips I see the hands and Nina’s expression, now more a source of concern than wonder, but I completely glossed over how rigidly she was handled to get her onstage.  Garbus’ answer to my blindness is a humbling one, as throughout What Happened, Miss Simone? she shows how the machinery of America, both in its economics and racial politics, was designed to both give her the means of expression which let her deal with her bipolar disorder and cram her into a cage.   One of the most revealing lines is how Simone just wanted to be the first black American concert pianist, but because of school’s discomfort with her full lips and dark skin she had to take up playing piano in bars to support her family.  Then she sang because her boss told her it was either play and sing or find another job.  Then she found a husband who exploited her financially and physically.

Simone's life may be the reason to another quote from Maya Angelou, "I know why the caged bird sings."

Simone's life may be the reason to another quote from Maya Angelou, "I know why the caged bird sings."

The film goes on, constructing this narrative of economic necessity which drove Simone insane.  Garbus presents this in what seems like a straightforward rags to riches documentary, but the economic struggle, as well as Simone’s personal and mental demons, are always at the periphery.  Every new scene adds texture and context to the performances which came before.  So when Simone comes alive onstage we start to wonder – is it because she’s free from her jailors, if just for a moment?  Will the concert attendee Simone yells at to sit down be the person who makes her swing violent onstage?  Just how much forced direction can someone as strong as Simone take?

Garbus isn’t saying, but there’s an answer merely hinted at in the form of disappointment and release with the many participants of What Happened, Miss Simone?  Much like the way America has treated black stars like a disposable commodity, we have sidelined many of the contributors to the Civil Rights movement.  Garbus makes the connection between culture and politics clear in beautiful moments featuring the daughters of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, Attallah and Ilyasah.  None of these women, Nina’s daughter Lisa Simone Kelly among them, had an easy time growing up with such controversial parents.  But they are able to recall, through tears bitter and happy, the energy and passion of growing up in the Civil Rights movement.  Even though Simone would say, late in life, that she regretted her contributions, the footage speaks differently.  Brief as it may be, we see the fire of Simone in full bloom, right before she stuffed back into her cage.

None of this came to me immediately.  Casual viewers might think What Happened, Miss Simone? is a routine documentary.  But the structure calls into question every joy and struggle in Simone’s life.  Look to the edges, the questions left unanswered and the sadness forcefully turned into a smile, to see the story of Simone’s life.  It was hard, often unrewarding, and filled with people who wanted her to be everything but herself.  Be it economics or politics, this was the tragedy of Simone, and her real story deserved to be told.

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Tail - What Happened Miss SimoneWhat Happened, Miss Simone?  (2015)

Directed by Liz Garbus.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (2) Trackbacks (0)
  1. YES. such a great film

    • I adore Nina Simone, so I was predisposed to at least liking it, then I was thinking about it the next day and caught myself starting to cry. It’s so damned affecting.

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